Message from Associate Dean Christine Julien: Language Matters

November 2, 2020

Dear Cockrell School Students, Faculty and Staff,

For the month of November, the Cockrell School’s diversity, equity and inclusion focus is on language. Words are the foundation of our interactions in our community. They can show respect and care, or they can be thoughtless and harmful. Many words have origins that we are unaware of or fail to think about (consider, for instance, the widespread use of the term freshman on college campuses or the use of the terms master, slave and blacklist in computing fields). I challenge us all to spend this month more deliberately thinking about the language we use and the impact that it can have on others.

We can all make mistakes in using words to describe ourselves and others, and because language evolves over time, we are all continuously learning new things. For instance, the term cisgender, to describe a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex at birth, has only recently come into the vernacular, and its use is important as a sign of wider acceptance of transgender individuals.

In addition to words to describe ourselves and other individuals, we also often use words to refer to groups of people. In both cases, it is important to use words that are preferred by that individual or group. For instance, some Americans of African descent prefer the term Black while others prefer the term African American. Similarly, you will sometimes see terms for groups used interchangeably, even when they are not interchangeable. Take for instance the terms Latinx, for people who are from or descended from Latin America, and Hispanic, for people who are from or descended from Spanish speaking countries. The groups overlap, but they are not the same. The term BIPOC, for Black, Indigenous People of Color, has also recently emerged, and POC, BIPOC, Black, and African American are not all synonyms.

Another important point is to use adjectives as adjectives, not as nouns. For instance, say Black students and faculty in the Cockrell School rather than saying Blacks in the Cockrell School. In many cases, person-first language may be better — the term person with a disability is preferred to disabled person. And try to shift away from terms that directly minoritize groups by referring to them as something “less”; avoid terms like minority or marginalized.

A full glossary would be very long, but some important terms that can ground our conversations are defined below, followed by several linked resources for you to educate yourself further.

Most importantly, I encourage all of us to be open to learning more. It is always OK to ask what something means or use other resources to find answers. And be kind when correcting others and helping them learn. To ultimately foster a more inclusive environment, call people “in” (to having a constructive dialogue on how their words or actions may be harmful) rather than “out” (by challenging them in a way that makes them defensive).

Intentionally reflecting on and potentially changing the way we use language isn’t our only or final goal. But it is an essential step in making the Cockrell School a more inclusive environment for everyone.


Christine Julien Signature

Christine Julien
Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Cockrell School of Engineering

Sample of Commonly Used Terms

Diversity is defined as having representation from a broad spectrum of identities, including age, disability status, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, nationality, race, religious beliefs or ideologies, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and veteran status.

Equity is giving each individual access to the resources they need to learn, perform, work and thrive, based on where they are and where they want to go.

Inclusion is creating an environment that welcomes, embraces and leverages the diversity that exists in our community to ensure that individuals feel supported, listened to, empowered and able to do their personal best and contribute fully to the community.

Intersectionality refers to the intersection of various identities (i.e. first generation female student) and the cumulative way that an individual experiences multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racism, sexism and agism) that overlap in interdependent ways.

Ally refers to a person from one identity group who actively supports members of another identity group.

Bias is a preference for or against a thing or a person whether that preference is conscious or unconscious.

Tokenism is the act of pretending or making only perfunctory efforts to be inclusive of individuals from groups that are often treated inequitably.

Additional Resources

APA Style Guide, Bias-Free Language

The urgency of intersectionality, a TED talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw

The ABCs of LGBTQIA+, by Michael Gold in The New York Times

70 Inclusive Language Principles That Will Make You a More Successful Recruiter, from Handshake